Last week the BBC revealed that the Doctor Who 50th anniversary special would be shown in 3D, not only on television via the BBC HD channel, but also in cinemas. In a playful announcement, executive producer Steven Moffat said that “Technology has finally caught up with Doctor Who and your television is now bigger on the inside”.
It is not the first time Doctor Who has played with 3D technology. In 1993, to celebrate the 30thanniversary of the series, a two-part 3D special, Dimensions in Time, was shown as part of the annual Children in Need fundraising event. Filmed in Albert Square in a bizarre crossover with top-rated soap Eastenders the special featured the five surviving of the seven incarnations of the Doctor as played by Jon Pertwee, Tom Baker, Peter Davidson, Colin Baker and Sylvester McCoy.
Furthermore, in 2010, a 3D trailer for the first series featuring Matt Smith as the Doctor was shown in cinemas. We might also mention here the peripheral role played by 3D in ‘Doomsday’, the finale of the first season of David Tennant’s time in the Tardis, as he uses old-fashioned red and green anaglyph glasses to identify the “void stuff” which can suck the Daleks back into the hole between universes.
But while the Whoniverse’s modest 3D history contextualises this decision somewhat, far more interesting and significant is what it means for British television’s general engagement with 3D, and the BBC’s in particular. It is not the first BBC drama to be in 3D. That honour goes to an adaptation of David Walliams’ book Mr Stink, starring Hugh Bonneville and Pudsey the dog, broadcast on 23 December 2012 in both 2D and 3D. Discussing the drama in December 2012, Andy Quested, the BBC’s ‘Chief Technologist 3D and HD’ referred to Mr Stink as ‘the next phase of the BBC 3D trial”. The operative word here is ‘trial’ and this reflects the highly ambiguous state of 3DTV in the UK. It is now almost three years since the launch of Sky 3D in April 2010, and despite the fact that sales of 3DTVs have grown considerably, it remains the only dedicated 3D channel. More and more homes have 3D enabled TV sets but that does not necessarily mean that people are watching. The Queen’s Christmas Day speech was watched by 6.3 million viewers on BBC1, and only 36,000 in 3D on the HD channel, while the Olympic opening ceremony drew an average audience of 23 million viewers on BBC1 while the viewing figures for 3D were a comparatively meagre 111,000, although 350,000 Sky customers watched the ceremony in 3D. At present Sky 3D is only available to subscribers to Sky’s most expensive TV package, but in an effort to boost its 3D service, Sky announced in January that it was considering offering 3D to more of its 4.5 million HD subscribers by offering 3D as part of smaller, more dedicated packages. One suggestion is that, for example, subscribers to the Sports package will be able to watch the Ryder Cup in 3D without needing the extra upgrade.
The point is that three years on 3DTV has still to find both an audience and an identity. As popular 3D cinema bottoms out, there are signs that it is beginning to find a niche as one of a series of tools available to artistically minded filmmakers wishing to explore its use as a form of aesthetic expression. By far the most notable 3D films to emerge since Avatar (2009) are works that sit outside the mainstream blockbuster genre that introduced it. Films like Wim Wenders’ Pina (2011), Werner Herzog’s Cave of Forgotten Dreams (2011), Martin Scorsese’s Hugo (2011) and, most recently, Ang Lee’s Life of Pi (2012) use 3D as part of an artistic vision, much like James Cameron did with Avatar, rather than as a value-added ‘effect’. Yet this is possible in cinemas because 3D is almost exclusively narrative-based, whereas on TV it is still predominantly linked to arenas such as sport where aesthetic experimentation is hardly a significant consideration. The BBC themselves, up until the announcement of Mr Stink, almost exclusively targeted their 3D experiment at high-profile spectaculars such as the Olympic opening ceremony, the 2012 Last Night of the Proms and the 2011 Strictly Come Dancing final, programmes which were bound to attract huge audiences and so encourage those with 3D enabled TV sets to try it. Indeed practically the only artistic endeavour in UK 3D broadcasting has been Sky 3D’s wildlife documentaries fronted by David Attenborough, most recently Galapagos 3D. The decision to break away from male dominated arena of sport into documentary in the case of Sky and into popular live events in the case of the BBC is obviously designed to broaden the appeal of 3D, and the decision to broadcast Doctor Who, one of the BBCs flagship family dramas, in 3D is clearly part of that attempt.
But this in turn begs the question of why? The BBC has no particular need to promote 3D seeing as firstly it doesn’t need subscribers and secondly it’s now fairly clear that 3D is not going to be the future of mainstream television or cinema. Perhaps the BBC’s 3D trial is television’s equivalent of cinematic experimenters like Herzog and Scorsese, testing the purpose of 3D to try and find its place in the market. The problem is that Herzog and Scorsese et al are visionary filmmakers whose work stands out due to a sensitive use of 3D aesthetics. My concern is that 3D alone is not enough for Doctor Who. In order to make this work for audiences already jaded by bad 3D movies you have to ensure the director knows how to use it, and Doctor Who, for all it is well directed, is a writers’ show.
Whether it will work or not is to be seen, as indeed is whether it will boost the profile of 3DTV and help it find its niche, but nevertheless given that this broadcast of Doctor Who comes on the heels of the Queen’s Speech, Last Night of the Proms and the Olympics, it is a testament to the astonishing rebirth of the series and the significance which the BBC is placing on the 50th anniversary. Of course 3D, 2D, whatever. Just make sure that David Tennant is in it. Then I’ll be watching with my uncomfortable glasses on and a huge grin on my face.
Simon Brown is Director of Studies for Film and TV at Kingston University. His main research areas are early cinema, British cinema and contemporary American television, and he has published pieces on shows as diverse as Dexter, Alias, Supernatural and The X-Files.